I believe that the purpose of education is to instill in students an understanding of how to think critically, discover and activate knowledge, and identify the individual ways in which they can experience a fulfilling and engaging life. I come from a family of teachers, including both of my parents who worked in public education. At the beginning of my own instructional career, the job that paid my rent while I was studying Graphic Design at TCU was teaching art at a small, private elementary school, and what I learned while teaching primary students to draw is immensely relevant to what I do today: teaching university students how to design with curiosity, empathy, and integrity.
The Active Classroom
I entered the field of design, and subsequently teach it, because I think that design is one of the purest examples of an “applied liberal art.” Design is not the mastery of a single discipline, but instead an exploration of the connecting points between people, places, and things. Our field is meandering and iterative, and inherently centered in the human experience. I teach human-centered design because, in many ways, teaching is the perfect activity for a human-centered designer. Most of what we do as designers focuses not on creating outcomes, but on creating structures within which movement can occur. We focus on potentiality. By creating the structure of a syllabus, assignments, learning objectives, and instructional events, I negotiate a space for exploration. I love ambiguity, and love seeing students move from a place of tension to a place of realization, to a place of enthusiasm, to a place of application—a process Peter Reason and John Heron refer to as “co-operative inquiry.”¹ As subsequently referenced by David Wolsk²:
“Students would engage in cooperative inquiry in order to “understand their world, make sense of their life and develop new and creative ways of looking at things [and] — learn how to act to change things they may want to change and find out how to do things better.”
In design, to learn is to do—there is no separation between a conceptual understanding and a practical exploration. I believe in a dynamic and experience-based model of learning that is heavily influenced by exposure to a wide array of methods, concepts, and perspectives. In my class structures, emphasis is placed on a synthesis of theory and methods alongside the embedded, individual knowledge of each design student—a mode that Bonwell and Eison refer to as “Active Learning.”³ Theory informs instruction, instruction informs research, research informs action, all of which supports “students…doing things and thinking about what they are doing” as well as their “efforts to actively construct their [own] knowledge.”⁴ These efforts are based in practice, and practice is the key to retention.
Students as Individuals
When teaching the practice of design, I want to push my students towards inevitable participation in the formative future of humankind. This is grandiose, but education is grandiose, in that to believe in the power of learning is to believe in the potential of people. As R. Buckminster Fuller popularly put it, “Dare to be naïve.” He also famously noted that⁵:
“We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.”
In that spirit, my goal is to give students the tools and opportunities to reframe their traditional modes of thinking and identify the areas in which they can continue to grow over time. For this reframing to reach its fullest potential, the classroom must be a place filled with diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and passions. It should be an urgent reflection of the broader society in which we live, and therefore an effective classroom is a classroom that prioritizes a “critical engagement of difference*.” My experiences engaging with students who have manifested a wide range of cultural and social identities in a variety of classroom contexts has given me, as an educator, a chance to not only learn and grow myself, but more importantly to cultivate a space in which these different cultures and backgrounds can be shared, discussed, and seen as unique lenses through which we can learn more about how to be empathetic humans and curious learners. In design practice we often talk about “subject matter experts’’, and each student is a subject matter expert of their experiences and needs: while it might be attractive to think of the classroom as “neutral ground” when it comes to race, gender, socioeconomic background, and age (among other things), students are unable to shed these integral aspects of themselves when they enter the classroom, and neither should they feel compelled to. It is my responsibility to meet each student where they are, actively listen, and create structures and assignments that are inclusive enough for each student to thrive. Educators serve as a model to our students by demonstrating a willingness to listen, learn, and grow. Tactically, I seek to structure an inclusive learning environment based in these principles:*
Design each semester with inclusivity in mind: Recognize and celebrate that from the moment they walk into the classroom, each student will bring something different to the conversation. There will be more differences than similarities in backgrounds, ideologies, communication styles, and learning styles, and these should be acknowledged from day one.
Take the time to know each student individually: I am not merely teaching a class en masse, I am teaching individual students, and I need to know each student personally in order to create a comfortable and stimulating context for their learning. This “seeking to know” not only helps build trust, but accelerates learning potential for each student.
Set the ground rules for respectful communication early: A design classroom is one that is fundamentally built on critical thinking and critique, and critique brings with it robust debate. In an unhealthy classroom, this critique can bring with it an element of domination or diminishment of a competing viewpoint. This must be clearly and strongly discouraged through ground rules that are conveyed in both written and verbal form throughout the semester. Alternatively, frameworks for healthy and constructive critique should be consistently outlined and modeled.
Include content from multiple perspectives, and move beyond the traditional academic canon: Something as simple as a reading list should never be the same year to year. Course content should come from a living library that includes diverse voices from all ages, backgrounds, and walks of life. The academic canon of design is notoriously uniform, which places unnecessary constraints on a student’s ability to see their role in the field outside of a conformist, modernist aesthetic. We are at a pivotal point in design education where we not only have the opportunity to expand and reconfigure the canon, but the responsibility to do so.
Design assignments that allow equal access to learning and practice: Every student has a unique set of strengths and limitations that will influence how they learn. Whether the student has a learning difference, a language barrier, parenting responsibilities, or a job that requires them to work specific hours (all of which I have encountered myself in the classroom), they should be able to engage with assignments at an equal level. Coursework should be flexible enough to accommodate individual circumstances, and be adaptable without diminishing the overall learning objectives. This requires a comfort with ambiguity from both an instructional and student perspective, but if paired with individual relationship building, can be very effective.
“Life is an endless unfolding, and if we wish it to be, an endless process of self-discovery, an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our own potentialities and the life situations in which we find ourselves. By potentialities I mean not just intellectual gifts but the full range of one's capacities for learning, sensing, wondering, understanding, loving and aspiring.”⁶
— John W. Gardner, Education and Excellence
Anticipate and prepare for conflict around controversial topics: A classroom should be a place of diverse passions, which carry with them the potential for intense disagreement or verbal challenge. I must be prepared to engage directly with these conversations in a way that does not diminish the importance of the topics or the perspectives of the students, while also allowing them to exist within the constraints of the respectful communication guidelines that have been established for the class. Sometimes this requires a gentle reminder in the moment, and sometimes it requires individual conversations with the involved students. Along with general guidance, it is my responsibility to provide students with any specific university resources that can help them navigate personal circumstances or past experiences that might be surfacing in our class conversations as individual sensitivities.
Encourage the students to contribute to the course’s body of knowledge: Since students inhabit a variety of cultural spaces, each one is exposed to very individual voices and influences. By creating a safe, curious environment where students can share what (or who) influences their practice, we can facilitate every student’s exposure to contemporary resources or institutions (academic, cultural, or professional) that could add to their own personal growth. As an instructor, being receptive to student’s contributions helps me sustain the relevance of the course material, as well as maintaining my own elasticity and relevance as a designer.
Gather student feedback regularly and through multiple avenues: I cannot depend on my own analysis of whether my attempts at creating a dynamic and inclusive classroom is working, I need to get regular feedback from my students on how well things are working. This should happen at various points in the semester, and be both direct and unthreatening to them. Anonymous surveys, office hours, and scheduled individual consultations are all methods that I have used to help facilitate student conversations and feedback.
Continually engage in personal reflection, evaluation, and development: An inclusive classroom is not static. It is not something that is perfected once and then put on semester after semester. As an instructor, I need to take regular time to reflect on our classroom experiences, consider student conversations, continually absorb other perspectives through reading, relationships, and media, and apply new insights to my own processes. By engaging in my own personal development, I am investing in a better learning environment for my students.
As knowledge is built on what we already know, learning is built on what we’ve already experienced. However, knowledge is also always changing—so our exploration of knowledge should always be changing. The way we teach should always be responding to the changes in what we teach. However, while the materials of each class are unique (teaching a design history class is much different than teaching a digital user experience class), my basic structure for each assignment follows a similar general pattern: instruction, response, action, and critique. Since design solutions can be highly individual, it’s important to create clear learning objectives for each class from the beginning that give students an understanding of overall expectations. These should avoid being project-specific, should be measurable, and should anticipate different starting points for each student.
Modes of instruction are diverse, ranging from lectures to articles, to films. In general, I prefer insight to occur via discussion rather than through lecture. The lecture is an inherently hierarchical model in which the teacher is not positioned as a fellow learner, but as a voice of truth (a context referred to as “teacher-dominated interaction” by Naveena Thotakura⁹ and others). I believe that once a teacher loses touch with the fact that they are co-learners with their students, they lose much of their effectiveness. To lose track of your role as a learner is to lose elasticity. This is especially true in a discipline like design, which evolves so quickly that it can be almost unrecognizable year-to-year.
With this in mind, two particular areas that I prioritize in my courses are discussion and collaboration, particularly as it relates to contemporary culture and the canon of design. In my current SMU class The Context and Impact of Design, for example, each student is asked to submit a weekly “discovery”, usually an article, book, film, or podcast. This activity has the express goal of building and expanding a body of literature around design, which has historically been very Euro-centric, male-dominant, and entrenched in a modernist tradition. The goal is not to inherently diminish the contributions of all individuals within those groups, but to balance and temper them within the context of a broader, more expansive, and more living narrative around design. The traditional academic canon is simply not an accurate picture of design history or practice, and the students are tasked with helping to evolve that narrative in real-time. These findings also seed the key element of each class session, which is deep discussion around a focused design topic. It is through these deep discussions that students expand their exposure to not only their fellow students but also what those students value and are excited by. These individual experiences, when shared, help create a more robust, open type of empathy and understanding within each student.
“Perhaps no teaching method is more widely used and yet more strongly criticized than is the lecture.”⁸
— Lane Birkel
“If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.”¹⁰
— John Dewey
In art and design we tend to focus on the traditional three dimensions, but the fourth dimension of time is as important as those first three. Teaching happens over time, and learning happens over time, and the objective should be to measure and qualify that growth over time. However, in many classroom contexts, time can seem endless. When learning is presented as a passive exercise of knowledge consumption, students are often unable to make the connections between what they don’t know and what is useful to know, since personal experience is tied to personal action and practice. The enduring value of one’s learning is tied to the usability (or practical application) of the knowledge. Even abstract learning must be tied to the life of the learner.
This is why I often come back to the analogy of a city when talking about design. The city in which we walk is two cities, the sensual city, and the interpretive city. The sensual city is composed of bricks, concrete, street lights, jackhammers, garbage cans waiting to be emptied. The interpretive City, within our skulls, is composed of our own history, experiences, and ether. The sensual city exists only in the present; the domain of the interpretive city is the past and the future. We travel through the sensual city. We travel with the interpretive one. When considering design, you have to live in both cities, and my goal as a design teacher is to help students feel comfortable, curious, and equipped in each.
*Guiding institutions such as the Center for Teaching Innovation at Cornell, the Center for Teaching and Learning at The University of Washington, and the Center for Research on Teaching and Learning at The University of Michigan (where I first encountered the phrase “critical engagement of difference” to describe a concept that I have long valued but been unable to sum up succinctly) among others have been personally formative as I’ve navigated specific language and word choices around my approaches to an equitable philosophy of education and an inclusive classroom.
¹ Reason, P., and Heron, J. “Co-operative Inquiry (with John Heron).” In R. Harre, J. Smith, and L. Van Langenhove (eds.), Rethinking Methods in Psychology. London: Sage, 1995.
² Wolsk, David. “Experiential Knowledge.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning, vol. 2003, no. 94, Wiley Subscription Services, Inc., A Wiley Company, 2003
³ Bonwell, C. C., and Eison, J.A. (1991). Active learning: creating excitement in the classroom. ASH#-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1, Washington, D.C.
⁴ Carr, R., Palmer, S., and Hagel, P. (2015). Active learning: the importance of developing a comprehensive measure. Active Learning in Higher Education 16
⁵ Sieden, Lloyd Steven. A Fuller View: Buckminster Fuller’s Vision of Hope and Abundance for All. Divine Arts, 2012.
⁶ Gardner, John W. “Personal Renewal.” Speech delivered to McKinsey & Company, Phoenix, AZ. November 10, 1990.
⁷ Hooks, Bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge, 2017.
⁸ Birkel, Lane F. “The Lecture Method: Villain or Victim?” Peabody Journal of Education, vol. 50, no. 4, Taylor & Francis Group, 1973
⁹ Naveena Thotakura “Effectiveness of Small Group Discussion over Traditional Lecture: A Cross Sectional Comparative Study.” IOSR Journal of Research & Method in Education
¹⁰ Dewey, John. (1916). Democracy and Education